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It's not just about the bike

Cyclists in London

As construction of the first sections of London’s much-vaunted North-South cycle superhighway continues apace, Adrian Lord calls for the removal of legal impediments to effective cycling infrastructure in the UK

Adrian LordMuch is written about the need to adopt a ‘continental’ approach to design of cycling facilities, but one of the reasons why UK infrastructure looks and feels different from that of our northern European neighbours is the underlying legal framework.

Across most of Europe, the driver is presumed liable in the case of injury to a pedestrian or cyclist. ‘Presumed liability’ doesn’t mean cyclists and pedestrians are always found blameless – they may be proved to have acted irresponsibly or unlawfully and be held proportionately liable.

But around 70 per cent of collisions involving cyclists in the UK happen at junctions when the cyclist is riding straight ahead and can’t do much to avoid being hit by a turning vehicle. It is often a struggle for them to get legal or financial redress.

Presumed liability already exists in the UK.

For example, if you drive into the back of somebody, you will normally be presumed liable.

And, although it does rely to some extent on pedestrians and cyclists being insured, many household policies already include public liability insurance that covers damage or injury accidentally caused to others. Members of cycling organisations such as British Cycling also have insurance through memberships.

Presumed liability is certainly not a panacea that makes every driver behave more safely. It applies in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, but also southern and eastern European countries, where attitudes to cyclists and road conditions are no better than in the UK.

However, it is likely to be hidden somewhere in a driver’s psyche, and may modify behaviour enough to ensure that drivers obey signs and markings that are there to protect cyclists and pedestrians.

"It may modify behaviour enough to ensure that drivers obey signs and markings that are there to protect cyclists and pedestrians"

Anybody who has cycled in Copenhagen will have experienced the slightly unreal sensation of approaching a busy side road on a bicycle track and all the cars stopping to let you across. It takes some getting used to for Britons.

Being able to cross side roads without stopping is an important feature of segregated infrastructure. Most urban cycle journeys in Britain are less than 5 km and rarely last more than 30 minutes. Frequent stops add disproportionately to journey time; the effort required to get going again is equivalent to adding 200 metres.

It’s hardly surprising that many cyclists stay on the road if the cycle path takes more time and effort.

The only clear guidance on giving cycle tracks priority in the UK suggests they should be on a hump and set back 5 metres from the junction mouth – impossible to achieve in most urban streets. Similarly, giving pedestrians priority at a side road would require a zebra or signalled crossing. These can’t be placed on junctions so usually end up away from where people actually want to cross.

In Denmark, an ‘unconditional duty to give way’ applies to drivers at side roads. As a cyclist you can pedal along a cycle track, or along the road, straight across the side road. Motor traffic will not cut you up, and will even wait for you to come from behind before turning in.

In the UK Rule 170 of The Highway Code requires drivers to give way to those already crossing a junction, but not people approaching the junction.

The Danish rule requires that drivers also have to wait for cyclists approaching the junction. It is very simple and applies (almost) everywhere, including at signalised junctions where cyclists can go straight ahead while turning traffic has to wait for a gap.
In design terms this rule enables very simple priority side road layouts with minimal signs and markings. At signalised junctions it eliminates the requirement for expensive and slow ‘staggered’ toucan crossings that throw pedestrians and cyclists together into a space dysfunctional for both.

These two simple legal changes are still a pipe dream for UK traffic planners and engineers, but their introduction could go some way to making streets more attractive for cycling without filling them with yet more street clutter.

Adrian Lord is an associate director of Phil Jones Associates and infrastructure adviser to British Cycling


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